There is no way this post will escape judgement from the architectural fraternity. Corbusier is a name that sparks debate. Either you are sold on his work or you don’t care for it at all. For some, liking or disliking Corbusier is about defending or critiquing modernism itself.
I would not take it that far. Personally, its quite simple. Being a student of architect in the 90s meant a fair amount of exposure to the work of the Modern Masters, and I remain enchanted by their confidence, their mastery over form and their bold use of the materials and technology of their times. And so, when a fellow delegate attending a conference in Lyon, France proposed a quick visit to Firminy to see some of Corbusier’s buildings, I did not hesitate to join the expedition.
The trip was an adventure from the get go. The three of us — a senior architect and academic from Kerala, a young French speaking architect of Indian origin, and me — decided to skip lunch to get on the next train out of Lyon, and ended up making a desperate dash to catch it. It rained constantly as we rolled out of the city into the countryside, and the landscape of fields and woodlands interpersed with dying de-industrialising towns passed by. And when we got off at Firminy, our colleague and guide on the trip discovered he had lost his phone!
Not to be deterred, we grabbed a quick bite to restore our somewhat flagging spirits, and headed out in the pitter patter to the Corbusian landmarks that the town is clearly famous for. We started with the Saint-Pierre church, with its intriguing frustum-like form placed on a square base. Luckily for us, it happened to be France’s National Day for Architecture, so entry was gratis. I have to say it felt pretty good that a country appreciated its architects enough to have a day in their honour!
Looking at these images weeks afterwards, its hard to describe the feeling while standing there in front of the structure. The terrain is hilly and at different points, one finds oneself viewing the church from varying eye levels. The base is punctured with fenestration, the top is solid and heavy, the funnel shape saving it from looking disbalanced.
The interiors, though, are another story. Here, the fluidity of moving through spaces is aided by the light effects caused by the juxtaposition of glass and concrete. We wandered in a bit of a trance through what are now exhibition halls, which showcased a lovely exhibit about Corbusier’s longstanding collaboration with interior designer Charlotte Perriand, whose work relationship with Corbusier makes for an interesting story about the gender struggles of the times. The exhibition emphasized Corbusier’s experiments with lighting, architecturally and in collaboration with interior designers like Charlotte, and the many images of Chandigarh on the walls made me smile!
The trance intensified into a heart-stopping moment as we climbed into the heart of the church. I stood there gaping for a few heart stopping and goosebump-y moments as I took in what Corbusier had done with the lighting inside that space. From the square base, the sheet of concrete morphs into a cone, with the top chamfered off at an angle. Light comes in indirectly, reflecting off coloured sheets and water, to shimmer in geometric patterns across the ceiling. A pity we were there on a really grey day and couldn’t see the full effect. Even so, it was a magical space, and very unorthodox indeed for a catholic church. The pictures below do no justice at all!
What’s really special about Firminy, however, is the special grouping of Corbusier’s work, which includes the Saint-Pierre church and an arts and sports centre collectivelly called the Site Le Corbusier. The Maison de la Culture, which we walked to next, is part of his collective works that are listed by UNESCO and includes Chandigarh’s Capital Complex. A completely different experience from the church, the Maison de la Culture sports a jaunty facade on its shorter side, owing to the upturned vault roof create through strung a system of strung cables. It long facade is a series of vertical windows, with the famous ‘music notes’ fenestration he designed in collaboration with composer Iannis Xenakis. Many other classic Corbusian features are visible in the Maison de la Culture like the ‘Modulor’ furniture by Pierre Guariche and his centrally hinged windows. It is easy to get lost in the details of the building, and helpfully there are models and drawings to explain some of this.
But the brilliant details apart, it is the absolute confidence in the way Corbusier visualizes his buildings within the landscape that is striking. Some hideous new buildings have kind of marred this, but it is not hard to that Corbusier saw his modernist concrete forms juxtaposed against the rolling hills behind. We caught a glimpse of this on a day when the mist particularly accentuated this contrast.
Firminy is a sleepy town and mainstreet was already shutting down as we headed back to the station, only to discover that our adventures were not yet done! The trains were on strike! And two of us were catching flights back to India the next morning. Sigh! Fortunately, there were some emergency services still running and we had to kill an hour and a half drinking beer and chatting before getting onto a crowded train back to Lyon. Bone tired, at the end of a crazy day, I was glad I could squeeze into my schedule what can only be described as the architectural version of a pilgrimage!
It is a strange feeling indeed when you spend the morning reading Murakami, alone in a hotel room in a country far far away. Fortunately for me, the sun was shining bright, revealing Stockholm’s warmer tone and texture. I tried to picture the same scenes in the steely barely-there Nordic winter light. And I knew what I was seeing wasn’t quite right, but guesswork about something I have yet to experience. A die-hard optimist and travel lover, I imbued a romanticism to that wintry scene that locals may find naive, going by the enthusiasm with which folks claimed gardens and public spaces across the city, soaking in the sun in a state of trance!
I have hardly ever felt the kind of loneliness the narrator talks of in Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart. When I have, it has sent me into a deep, dark place. I am always surrounded by people and with many I interact with I form real, and at times deep, connections. When I travel, I carry some people with me, inside. My family and select friends, I imagine sometimes, ‘see’ the world through me. In my head, I speak to them. So-and-so would have loved this, someone else would have found this funny, the kids would have never left this place, etc etc. Yet, I revel in being alone. I feel free to not have to make adjustments for anyone else, to be able to take off on a whim, or to simply not leave the hotel room to write! I see things differently when I travel alone, I think, I heal and rest. I re-calibrate. And when I return home, I hope, I connect even deeper.
Last Saturday, walking around Stockholm rejuvenated me after a long flight. I didn’t need food, or rest. The textures, the light and shadow, the colours and the architecture was fuel enough. I wandered aimlessly with camera in hand. I didn’t know where I was going and I found myself walking past the St Jacob’s Kyrka, the Royal Gardens, cross the water past the Palace. I walked until I ended up in Riddarholmen, a small island that houses a medieval church and many beautiful palaces from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. A veritable feast of architectural styles- Gothic, Renaissance and Romanesque with hints of Baroque. The altitude here allows for many vistas that look onto the water, offering spectacular view of Stockholm. I sat for a while next to an old lady on a bench. She wrote in her diary and I stared out onto the water, shared moments without exchanging a glance or acknowledging of each other, but yet a hint of awareness of sharing the space with another.
Eventually I was sucked into the ‘tourist trap’ (I am borrowing a friend’s phrase here) of Gamla Stan. The crowds struck and the usual paraphernalia of inner city tourism in Europe: endless souvenir shops, quaint ‘historic’ eateries with international brands sneaked in to make folks comfy (go figure!), boutiques and art galleries and cafes spilling into the streets in an unabashed celebration of summer’s unique consumerism. Amidst the hyperactivity, I found solace in beautiful doors, unexpected silences in side streets and ‘secret’ courtyards.
We visited Nantou on the last leg of our 2016 week-long field trip to Shenzhen on a hot, humid day. In contrast to the pulsating lanes of Baishouzhou and its unapologetic messiness, where we had spent relatively more time, Nantou appeared quaint and well suited to touristic exploration. After all, the settlement had once been a walled city of considerable political importance, and the remnants of that history were strewn across the village in the form of arched gateways, temples and sacred niches. My most vivid memory is that of an active main street full of the myriad tastes of China punctuated by a select number of restored (or being restored) buildings. This, in stark contrast to Hubei, a true blue urban village dating back to the 15th century that faces redevelopment.
This year, Nantou was the venue of the UABB, the bi-city biennale of Urbanism/Architecture that brings together artwork related to the urban experiences of Hong Kong and Shenzhen. Walking towards the South Gate of Nantou, we recognized familiar landmarks – the ancestor hall, the ornate gate itself, the garden and its sculptures. And further in, the smaller gate that enters the settlement itself.
Once we stepped inside, we realized how transformed the space was from what it used to be. The street before us, full of vendors and teeming with life, was now a subdued cleaned-up version of itself. New open spaces had been carved out and designed with great taste, but ‘no climbing’, ‘no touching’ signs all over the street furniture in these made us wonder what the village residents were thinking about the redesign interventions. At the very least, these spaces were being used in many ways and by different kinds of people. Newspapers were being read here, mothers and children were catching the winter sun and old women were resting as well. Further in, we found another lovely large open space – a new basketball court, temporarily in disuse. Presumably it will be resurrected and used as it should once the UABB is over.
Shaun Teo, whose PhD research is looking at the UABB’s transformative impacts, pointed out many more interventions in a very interesting tour he conducted that afternoon. He showed us some of the redesigned shops in the village, which looked beautiful but to my eyes were a clear push towards gentrification. Shaun showed us two interventions that emerged from a competition: 1- An attempt at entrepreneurship by a migrant renter who was running a cafe at the UABB in partnership with one of the organizers, and 2- A young urban designer’s redesign of a ground floor shop into the Nantou Living Room, his living space that doubles up into a space for village residents to meet and interact. Already, fresh interventions are spinning off of these. The entrepreneur is gathering capital to set up shop on a more permanent basis and the urban designer is taking baby steps forward with the landscaping of a “secret garden” tucked away behind his alley.
What does an event like the UABB signify to the residents of a neighborhood like Nantou? It is obvious that many have been displaced to make the event possible. Vendors, for sure, have been asked to leave and even some factories in order to get clear floor space for the exhibition halls. Most likely, the UABB has sped up the process of gentrification and the pricing out of current renters, in a location where rents are already quite high. This might mean higher densities and I’m unsure how Shenzhen authorities will balance the heritage value of Nantou will the unfolding densification processes.
On the positive side, the redesigned public spaces and wall art have added value too. From what I heard, the design of the venue was not exactly a consultative process, nor have the venues of previous editions of the UABB retained their look and feel after the event. Perhaps Nantou will reclaim its spaces back and make of them what they want to. Given that Shenzhen is currently working on the redevelopment of urban villages, a gentrified Nantou with a smattering of resident-friendly spaces and interventions is perhaps a best case scenario!
A jaunt to the gorgeous Musee d’Orsay made my day today. The museum stays open till late on Thursday, so I wound up work early and walked down from Place St Michel where I’m staying along they Seine. The weather has been exceptionally kind and the walk was leisurely and easy.
The museum has been on my hot list for Paris not because of the excellent collections it hosts, including a choice selection of works from my favourite French Impressionists, but because of its architecture. And it is indeed a spectacular transformation of a Beaux-Arts station, which was built for the Universal Exhibition of 1900. Even though this rather nasty review of the renovated buildings that appears in 1987 suggests that a breaking up of the volume inside the station was a misstep, I must say that the beauty, intricacy and monumentality of the vault hit me the moment I entered the space! The building combines both elements of the Beaux-Arts style, the structural metalwork as well as the ornamentility and this is still very visible in the current interiors. I do believe the ordering of the galleries has been redone in 2011 though and it is quite easy to figure out how the collections are arranged.
The icing on the cake, of course, was the special exhibit on the portraits of Cezanne, which I savoured with the aid of the audio commentary!
Sunday draws to a close and I remember my promise of blogging everyday. It’s easy to give up. Who’s going to hold me to account? But I then think about all those days I spent traveling last month that I have yet to write about and guilt overcomes me. Travel deserves to be written about especially if you’ve been to unusual places and had out-of-the-ordinary experiences. And so here goes….roughly in reverse order!
Paris. Early November. Winter is beginning to set in and its a windy, rainy day. I’ve spent the previous day, a sunny one, indoors reading and working. And on this blustering day, I’m out with Valerie to walk the streets of Paris. She meets me outside the Louvre pyramid armed with information from her husband and children on what could be unusual and exciting for a half day walkabout in the city.
We wander around the Place du Carrousel and stand under the Arc de Triomphe (du Carrousel), located at one end of the famous axis historique that begins here and stretches westward through the city passing through the more famous Arc de Triomphe (in the Place de Etoile) all the way to monumental and modern Le Grande Arch in La Defense. We go inside and under Pei’s remarkable pyramid to pay it obeisance and emerge soon after to walk across to the Comedie Francaise. Children play on the fountains and I revel in how public art enhances these beautiful public spaces, marrying the modern with the medieval in this ancient yet completely contemporary city.
We backtrack, walking back to the Louvre and past the older courtyard of the Louvre Palace and across the Seine towards the Institut. To the left, we see Pont Neuf and the Notre Dame Cathedral towering over the other structures on Ile de la Cite. This was the first of our many crossing over the beautiful river that morning and the city, shrouded in grey, looked mysterious and lovely and much better than I remembered seeing it on a summer day in 1999, when it was chock-a-block with tourists and the best monuments were draped in veils as they were being restored in preparation of the new millenium.
Down the steps and alongside the Seine we walk, briefly stopping beneath Henri IV astride his steed on the Ile and sstaring in amusement at the hundreds of love locks visitors had left here after the millions on Pont de Neuf were brought down last year!
In Place Dauphine, a quaint triangular park, Valerie talks about the character of these inner courtyards- often oddly shaped- that remain serene even as tourist hordes pass by near enough. Places that a Parisian would take you to!
We go back over the Seine, along the Pont Neuf this time and trek to Rue de Rivoli, all prepared for a totally different experience. We’ve heard of an artists squat, where artists had illegally occupied an entire building in historic Paris for years until the city made it legal recently. Eager to experience this hopefully eccentric place of peaceful anarchy, we trekked in the rain. Only to find the door firmly shut!
Not ones to give up, we change strategy and take the Metro to the next recommendation- the Pavilion de l’arsenal where we are told there is a giant interactive map of Paris. When we get there, we indeed see a number of screens on the floor making up a large LED space where, using a touch screen, you can navigate through the city and watch a giant google map before you. We have great fun zooming in to see the terrace of someone’s home or the bus stand outside the University and trace the route we had walked. The space also has a thorough exhibition of the city’s history, starting medieval times until the present. It’s really well done and we spend over an hour discussing many historical phases and then looking at current redevelopment projects, also presented here. The history aside, the architectural and planning content of the exhibition was so well put together, enabling any visitor to get under the skin of Paris and understand its context. I wish Delhi, Mumbai and many other Indian cities would attempt something like this and throw it open to the public the way Paris has done. It would not only educate but also involve citizens in a way that, I think, could have transformative impacts on our future.
Satiated and our minds full of imagery we cross the Seine, yet again, but this time to walk through the quaint and endearing Isle Saint Loius. I have always wondered about the little island next to the Isle de la Cite, one that is less famous but surely equally historic. It did not disappoint. Here we saw some stunning doorways, a little church built into the street and well ordered street facades that reflect its history as an early urban planning experiment from the 17th century. For the first time in Paris, back then, this island had homes that were oriented towards the street and not towards the inner courtyards, that now became small and narrow.
We have a lunch appointment and we are running late, we realize. And so we rush forward, crossing the Pont Saint Loius back into the Isle de la Cite, dashing into one street to see the few preserved medieval structures, crossing in front of the magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral and dashing in and out of the quaint churches of St Severin and St Germaine de Pres to reach our lunch destination. The clock is ticking and I have a flight to catch but we aren’t nearly done yet with our magical wanderings in Paris this nippy November day!
I’ve visited Amsterdam’s major landmarks iteratively and the Rijksmuseum has been a family favourite, home as it is to some of the most stunning works of famous Dutch artists like Rembrandt and Vermeer. This time though, my trip was dedicated to discovering the results of the major rehaul the museum has been through, planned since 2000 and finally executed between 2004 and 2012!
This is a landmark building through which a zillion cyclists ride each day, that shows it’s severe face to the city and it’s fun side to the open grounds called the Museumplein. The beautifully detailed magnificent masterpiece was designed by Peter Cuypers over 125 years ago and has been a museum since. It was heartening to see that the renovation had aimed to restore it to its original Cuypers design and detail even as the atrium that links its two parts has got a modern twist and a slew of technological advancements to better preserve its precious artworks put in place.
Through my visit, my eyes were riveted by the elegant proportions, exquisite brick detail and stained glass lobby. Most fascinating was the library where Cuypers work has been best showcased. Hats off to Spanish architects Antonio Cruz and Antonio Ortiz for their marvellously sensitive and meticulous work.
Of course, on a crowded Saturday, any attempt to see a museums artworks at leisure is a futile one. Still, I swung by the particularly well renovated Gallery of Honour and saw the crowd that was milling around Rembrandt’s famous ‘The Night Watchman’, then detoured to see my beloved Vermeers with a little more peace. Finally, I wandered through a few more galleries paying particular attention to the section on the East Indies, seeing Dutch colonialism in a new light post my Indonesia wanderings.
Stepping out into a drizzle and watching tourists enjoy themselves straddled across the giant ‘I am Amsterdam’ installation at Museumplein, I felt fortunate for this afternoon of alone time in the Rijksmuseum, the moments of contemplation and admiration, and most of all an appreciation for a culture that genuinely treasures its material history and celebrates it with no holds barred!
I must confess that I’ve been saving the best one of the three churches we saw for the last. I don’t know whether it because we were lightheaded from getting off a flight and heading directly to see the sights, or whether it was the novelty of being in a new city but it seemed to me that this little church threw open for us its heart and soul in a way that few places in the world have done before. We walked in and bought tickets, expecting a standard walk around the church, but what we got was an involved leisurely tour that allowed us to caress each piece of wood we fancied and linger at each pillar we liked.
It was here that we, once again, had the standard Ecuadorian conversation……
“De donde eres? Where are you from?”
“Eso es tan lejos! That’s so far away!…….Bienvendio a mi paid…. Welcome to my country….”
….but with the extra warmth and pride that Cuencans seem to have.
In Todos Santos, the oldest church in the city, those words came from the lips of a nun of the Oblate Order, which was set up in the late 19th century here and have played a key role in adding to the church structure as well as setting up community infrastructure, chiefly a school in the premises that was the first to permit Indian women to attend (and is still in existence today). Many of the Oblate nuns lived under an oath of silence inside the convent here and continue to be highly regarded in Cuenca. With this conversation began the most detailed tour of a heritage site that I’ve ever had.
In the late 1530s when it was constructed, the Iglesias Todos Santos or the All Saints Church was instrumental in helping the Spanish conquistadors establish the Catholic faith in a terrain steeped in Inca practices intermingled with the pre-Inca Canari culture (many pre-spanish graves were found during restoration). In fact, it is rumored to have been built on a site called Ushno, which was sacred to indigenous people and used for religious rituals by them.Even after the Spanish established the city of Cuenca in 1557 and began to hold their religious services in El Sagrario (read here), Todos Santos continued to be the primary church for the ‘evangelising’ of native people.
Architecturally, like in other monuments we saw of the period, Todos Santos was a curious mix of native technology and art with Spanish aesthetic sensibilities. Originally, the church was built on wooden frames and filled with adobe walls, built with a special mud-brick called bahareque, which the Canaris made with a mix of sugarcane, straw and clay.
Phoenix-like, this beautiful building underwent significant restoration between 2010-12 after being nearly destroyed in two fires in 2005 and 2007. The restoration uncovered the exquisite murals that had been unfortunately painted over in 1960. What we saw, therefore, was a church proud of its second lease of life. Locally made terracotta tiles, the detailed paintings over the stucco walls, the use of bright colors like cobalt blue, gold, red and yellow, the bright blue and gold ceiling tiles all clearly spoke of the influence of local art on this church, perhaps inevitable in those early years.
As we climbed higher and higher into the bell tower and beyond, we could see the surviving original wooden beams replaced and reinforced by new ones labeled 2009 and 2010. Standing high above the terracotta roofs of the city, with stunning vistas all around us, it wasn’t hard to imagine the awe a religious structure as well-proportioned and intricately decorated as Todos Santos might have evoked in the Canari and Inca people back in the 16th century. After all, even we had our jaws dropping to the floor and our eyes agog!
On a lighter note, I discovered while scouring the Internet later that we weren’t the only ones who had got the full detailed tour of Todos Santos! Many others had given it rave reviews citing the care with which they had been shown around. Far from feeling bad about it, I’ve been feeling delighted that the little church is in such very dedicated hands!
We’ve made the most of the four days in Cuenca, the hub of Ecuadorian art and culture. On the absolute top of my list of sights are three fantastic churches we visited. Each offered a distinct experience and was meticulously preserved.
I’ll begin with the largest of all, the Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción or the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, more commonly called the new Cathedral. Cuenca a city made for walking and its only fit that two of the major churches, this one and the older Iglesia del Sagrario are located across each on opposite sides of the pretty Park Calderon that functions as the old city’s main square.
Despite the massive brickwork walls that you see of the Cathedral as you walk around the city, nothing really prepares you for its sheer size. It reminded me instantly of the Byzantine churches like Aya Sofya that I’d seen in Istanbul. And I wasn’t very wrong, for Juan Batista Stiehle, the German Friar who drew up the plans for this Cathedral was certainly influenced by Byzantine and Romanesque styles. The main altar seemed to be more Baroque revival though, perhaps borrowing from the Baroque School of Quito, which in turned emerged from the extreme skill that native Indian communities had in working wood and metal.
The cathedral is relatively new. Construction only began in 1885 and went on for a hundred years or so. The story goes that when it first threw its doors open, it could accommodate 9000 people, in a town of 10,000! Beyond its grand scale, certainly its most dominant feature, of special note are the beautiful stained glass windows designed by Spanish artist Guillermo Larrazaba, who was invited to Ecuador for this assignment and then made the country his home, going on to design stained glass in prominent churches across the country.
The most exciting part of our visit to the New Cathedral was the climb up the tower to the top to see the beautiful domes clad with blue Czech tiles. The climb also sharpened our appreciation for the exquisite brickwork that still holds this magnificent structure together so well. The view of Cuenca from above, with its characteristic red tiled roofs, was a bonus!
Another city in Ecuador, quite different from Quito. Nestled in a wide valley and not that high altitude-wise, this is a laid back city and a haven for retired expats. That means many more people speak English and it’s rather small, so it’s much easier to get around. We landed here early in the morning and ended up wandering the city for hours waiting for check in time. More on those wonderful and crazy wanderings later.
After check in and a much needed afternoon nap (call it stone-dead slumber!), we walked to the city centre. Breathtakingly beautiful and full of unexpected sights, Cuenca has stolen my heart in a way that few places have. In addition to the gorgeous churches and squares, endless colonial facades and graffiti, there’s an earthy reality to the city and a sense of pride that is very endearing.
Here are my shots from our walk around town tonight. Consider them placeholders till I get time to blog in detail about what we are seeing and doing. Much love from Cuenca, Ecuador…..
After winding up our event at the Habitat3 conference here in Quito, Ecuador, we tested ourselves to an outing to the old city for dinner. Of course we had read up about the historic centre of the Quito but nothing could prepare us for the sheer unassuming beauty of it. Chok-a-block with people on a Monday night, families and young people out in full swing, the city showed us its lively, warm side tonight.
We ate at a ‘cafeteria’, an endearing and affordable place full of chattering people where service was prompt and the elevated revolving chairs and continuous platform tip made for a unique experience. And then we stepped out into the stunning streets to see beautifully lit churches, plazas overflowing with life and the happy sounds of little children, a lovely sound and light show playing on the facade of the old theatre building, endless street grids with the lights of the sloping hills twinkling through in the distance. Mesmerised, all we want to do is go back to see historic Quito in daylight.